Mississippi is set to impose the toughest abortion restrictions in the country, and the state's lone remaining clinic is vowing to sue.
Gov. Phil Bryant is set to sign within days the earliest abortion ban in the country, outlawing the procedure after 15 weeks, after the state's Republican-controlled House cleared the measure Thursday in a 75-34 vote.
Mississippi currently bans the procedure after 20 weeks. The new ban doesn't contain exceptions for rape or incest but would allow an abortion if the pregnant woman's life or a "major bodily function" is threatened or if the fetus has health problems that would prevent it from surviving outside the womb. Physicians that don’t comply would be subject to sanctions and civil penalties.
The ban could set up another test of federal courts' boundaries on abortion laws, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. By the time a challenge reaches the Supreme Court, a new lineup of justices reconfigured by one or more retirements could opt to redefine access to the procedure.
“Mississippi lawmakers are both pushing the envelope and testing Roe v. Wade at the same time,” Nash said.
The 15-week threshold is well before a fetus is viable.
Eighteen states ban abortion after 20 weeks, but efforts to set earlier restrictions haven't survived legal challenges. Federal courts have blocked a 12-week ban in Arkansas and a six-week ban in North Dakota, on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. The Supreme Court let those rulings stand.
Bryant, a Republican and staunch abortion foe, said that he wants to make Mississippi “the safest place in American for an unborn child.”
However, the operator of the state’s sole abortion clinic, Diane Derzis of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, which has fought a multi-year battle to stay open, told The Clarion-Ledger that she plans a court challenge, because the law would place an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. "These groups are tossing anything and everything out there, anything that could start winding its way through the legal system because we're in a very fragile place right now," Derzis told the newspaper.
An increase in prenatal medical knowledge and technology was a driving force behind the new ban, said Republican state Sen. Joey Fillingane, who introduced the measure in the Mississippi Senate and who believes it will survive a court challenge.
“I think we found the right balance with this 15-week ban,” said Fillingane. A court challenge "is not something that we’re scared of.”
But Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, said that he believes the bill will be tough to defend in courts: “We know that bans below 20 weeks have been struck down. ... We expect an immediate and expensive legal challenge.”
Louisiana state lawmakers also are considering a 15-week ban.